We're back with Part Two of our review of Chris Brown's excellent book, The Essential Smart Football. To recap, I'll be answering some questions provided by our own Eric Murtaugh about the topics covered in Brown's book and relate them Fighting Irish. If you have any topics you want me to cover (even if you haven't read the book), put them in the comments.
Part One can be found here.
Let's get to it.
A defensive coordinator friend of author Chris Brown says, "Give me the 2.5 GPA kid. I'll take them all day, everyday. Smart enough to know what's going on, too dumb to know when something is going to hurt, and not smart enough to remember what hurt last time." Additionally, Guz Malzahn always says "If you're thinking you're not playing." Do you believe Notre Dame suffers at all from recruiting players who are too smart and what about Andrew Hendrix' difficulties in grasping the science behind playing quarterback but struggling with the art?
I just don’t believe this to be true. Intelligence and football talent are not mutually exclusive. The problem Notre Dame frequently runs into is trying to find high school kids who excel both in the classroom and on the field. It’s not too hard to find someone who is good in one of those areas, but few people fill both requirements. But being smart isn’t a detriment to football success. If a player overthinks on the field, he’s going to do that whether he’s on the honor roll or is struggling to keep his GPA above 2.0.
What I think is problematic for Notre Dame is the fact that student-athletes are expected to be just that – a student and an athlete. I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing; in fact, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about Our Lady’s University. But there are only so many hours in the week, and our players are expected to split their time between studying and watching film.
Let’s be honest – even our "easy" majors aren’t easy. A lot of athletes major in something business-related, but the Mendoza College of Business is the top undergraduate business school in the country. We’re not shuffling athletes through General Studies majors or anything like that. While our athletes are studying and taking real classes, players at other schools can watch film or work out.
I’m not suggesting that anything needs to be changed. Notre Dame is one of the top academic institutions in the country and it should stay that way. But having players that are "too smart" is not a barrier to football success. I guess I don’t have any points to support my position other than what I said in my first sentence.
As for Hendrix, the knock I’ve always heard on him is that he’s easily rattled and struggles to make good decisions when plays start to break down. That’s why he tends to make boneheaded throws straight at opposing linebackers. I’ve also heard he takes a very academic approach to the quarterback position. He can recite the playbook but doesn’t know what do when his initial reads are covered.
I don’t think this is due to Hendrix being "too smart" or anything like that. Sometimes, a switch flips in an athlete and he surprises everyone. Jonas Gray is a great example. He was mostly a non-factor in the Irish depth chart for his first three years on campus and then exploded last season. I think Hendrix is just waiting for that light to turn on. He has all the tools to be a great quarterback, so if that happens, look out. And with Rees suspended for the Navy game, Hendrix has a shot at showing the coaches he can take that step forward and be the full-time starter against Navy and beyond.
Discuss how the up-tempo, no-huddle offense stymies defensive options. If Notre Dame finally went to this offense how lethal could it be given the versatility on the roster?
Rather than read what I think about the hurry-up offense, I think it would be better to hear from an expert in the field: current Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn. When discussing the advantages of the hurry-up offense in his book, The Hurry-Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy, Malzahn writes,
- Stops defenses from regrouping after big plays
The hurry-up, no huddle enables you to keep defenses on their heels after big plays… If they want to stop your momentum, they have to call time out.
- Makes it harder to pick up tendencies
Defenses have to worry about lining up properly first, before they can think about the play that may be dictated by the formation or substitution.
- Creates problems for defensive coaches
No need exists for you to be smarter than anyone else… You can almost always make better decisions than your opponent at the accelerated pace.
- Finding ways to communicate to their defense
In the hurry up, the defensive coordinator will have to be creative to signal his calls to all eleven players. Even if only one player does not get the correct call, then the hurry up is definitely worth the effort. Most of the opposing coaches have used numbers, colors, or combinations of both to try to achieve this. Although we are not in the signal stealing business, we usually have a good idea of an opponent’s defense before the play by the third or fourth series of a game.
That all sounds great, so let’s talk about how Notre Dame fits into this discussion.
Kelly ran a hurry-up, no huddle offense at Cincinnati, but his style hasn’t really caught on at Notre Dame. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the biggest is probably the make-up of the team Kelly inherited. The Irish have been a (more or less) pro-style team for the better part of a decade, so the style was firmly entrenched in the program. But that also came with a lot of weapons a spread team normally doesn’t have, namely a powerful offensive line and tight ends who can stretch the field.
I think we’re seeing Kelly shift to a more "pro-style spread." The Irish still don’t huddle, but the hurry-up element is basically nonexistent in the offense. I think Kelly is starting to shift to a more conservative offense focused on wearing teams out on the ground and falling back on the defense to shut down the opponent. With a roster of healthy tight ends, I think we’re going to see an offense that looks more like Stanford than 2009 Cincinnati.
As we saw in the spring game, the run game looks to be more focused on power than finesse. The Irish are still a zone-blocking team, but we saw Kelly and Chuck Martin use two tight end sets with one tight end acting as a fullback many times. This was a big part of the offensive attack early on last season, but when Mike Ragone went down against Michigan, Kelly was forced to use true freshman Ben Koyack as the second tight end. The two tight end formation just wasn’t as effective without Ragone.
This season, everyone is healthy and ready to go.
But what if Kelly decides to go hurry-up again? The weapons are certainly there and the versatility of the players on this roster could create some very interesting problems for defensive coordinators.
Imagine this scenario: Notre Dame comes on the field on first down with EG or Hendrix at QB, Theo Riddick at running back, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas at tight end, and DeVaris Daniels and TJ Jones at wide receiver. The defense puts in its base defense, expecting to see a run. Not surprisingly, the Irish line up with two tight ends and run power right at the defense. Notre Dame hurries back to line and this time line up with Daniels and Eifert split to the outside and Niklas, Riddick and Jones inside, and the quarterback in the shotgun with an empty backfield.
Suddenly, the defense has to put a corner on Eifert and a linebacker on Riddick or Jones. If the defense tries to sub in extra DBs, the Irish can line right back up in a two tight end set and run the ball down the defense’s throat. Or if the defense spreads itself out, Riddick could motion to the backfield and take a handoff. What do you do if you’re the opposing defensive coordinator?
I’ll believe the Irish are going to use the hurry-up full-time when I see it, but I think it could be a great way to throw defenses off balance next season.